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Analysis: Olmerts gets hardline partner

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Israel Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Monday expanded his coalition by co-opting the hawkish nationalist Israel Beitenu party.

The party's leader, Avigdor Liberman, joined the horseshoe Cabinet table in the Knesset hall after the legislators approved his entry 61 to 38.

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The stocky, bearded, 48-year-old Liberman is now a deputy prime minister and minister in charge of formulating Israel's policy on strategic threats. He will coordinate Israel's intelligence and other security services dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.

His co-option is most important to Olmert, who thus expanded his coalition from 67 members to 78 in the 120-seat Knesset. If Olmert also succeeds in bringing aboard the small ultra-orthodox Yahadut Hatorah, with whom talks have been intermittent, his coalition will be so big that no single partner could topple him by quitting.

Until now, Olmert has at times had difficulty securing a majority in the Knesset. Several members of his main coalition partner, the social-democratic Labor, voted as they saw fit.

By co-opting Israel Beitenu, Olmert also reduced the chances that right-wingers in his Kadima Party would bolt. Kadima is a new entity; many members came from the right-wing Likud, having jumped on the bandwagon at a late moment, and Olmert cannot be sure they would stay with Kadima.

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Gideon Rahat of Hebrew University's political science department told United Press International that with Liberman in the Cabinet, Kadima right-wingers would have more difficulty quitting the coalition. They could not claim to be more right-wing than Liberman, Rahat said.

Liberman himself seemed very eager to join the coalition. He asked for only one seat in the Cabinet though Israel Beitenu could have had more. Olmert noted that the Cabinet guidelines and coalition agreement would not change.

The agreement indicates Liberman will hardly have executive powers. He will be responsible for formulating government policy "on behalf of the prime minister." He will have to coordinate the defense and foreign ministries, the Mossad spy service and other elements but -- and here is the catch -- "without reducing the authorities of any other ministers" in their respective offices.

Olmert repeated that proviso in the Cabinet on Monday. "All the ministers will have their full powers ... without any blemish," he said.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz already served notice he would not let Liberman set foot in the Defense Ministry. Observers found it hard to believe that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz (responsible for the strategic dialogue with the United States), or minister Meir Sheetrit, who keeps an eye on the secret services, will relinquish any of their powers.

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Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer summed it up Monday. Liberman will be only, "One minister out of 20 and something. Really, what is he going to handle? The prime minister repeatedly said that the ministers' powers would not be touched nor harmed, so there is no reason to get excited."

Political analyst Hanan Kristal noted, however, that Liberman as a deputy prime minister will join the "Forum of Seven." That forum comprises the prime minister, his deputies and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shabak security service. That is the forum that took the major decisions during the Lebanon War. As a rule, four of its members were more hawkish, Kristal noted. Liberman will thus strengthen the hardliners.

Liberman strikes one as a man of action, not words. He said he wanted to be at the Cabinet table when it decides on preparations for future conflicts.

He also might have wanted to strengthen Olmert's government to prevent early elections. His main rival, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, is now leading the race but time may erode his popularity.

Liberman has had run-ins with the police and one investigation has been going on for six years. When he was sworn in, Arab Knesset members walked out. "A black day for the Knesset," someone called.

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Science Minister Ophir Pines of Labor resigned over Liberman's appointment.

"The moment the Government of Israel decided to co-opt Avigdor Liberman and Israel Beitenu whose platform contains racist elements ... I have no alternative," Pines said.

Liberman has advocated limiting civil rights to people who do not declare allegiance to the state and redrawing Israel's borders to exclude Arab towns and villages.

"The nerve of this immigrant ... who wants to transfer me," seethed Arab legislator Ahmad Tibi. Liberman immigrated from Moldova, in the former Soviet Union, in 1978.

"Whoever does not want to live with us in this Holy Land ... can leave the country," added legislator Ibrahim Sarsur.

During the Knesset plenary in May, Liberman criticized Israeli-Arab legislators who met Hamas and Hezbollah officials. He noted that Nazis and their collaborators were executed after World War II and added: "I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators in this house."

Rahat likened Liberman to extreme right-wingers in Europe, such as Austria's Joerg Haider. Liberman's positions "further harm Israel's problematic relations with the Arabs," he said.

Haaretz correspondent Akiva Eldar noted that even Haider "never called on Austria to rid itself of citizens who'd been living in the country for generations. Also, Haider never suggested standing up legislators representing these citizens in front of a firing squad ... Lieberman has stuck to his obscene views."

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Tel Aviv University political science professor Yoav Peled told UPI Liberman's appointment "legitimizes these views."

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